4 must-visit parks and forests from Alabama to West Virginia.
If you are an avid hiker and love the outdoors, you owe it to yourself to take at least one hiking trip to the American South. Rich in history and natural beauty, the region enjoys warm weather for much of the year and is home to several state and national parks that offer a variety of landscapes, mountains, rivers, wildlife and trails of various difficulty levels. These choices of terrain create the potential for great experiences and lasting memories for the thousands of hiking enthusiasts who visit the region each year.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Established in 1934 and officially dedicated in 1940 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses more than 800 square miles and is a must-see for any serious hiker or outdoors enthusiast. The park contains a portion of the famous Appalachian Trail and is known for its picturesque and misty mountain vistas, streams and waterfalls and dense, old-growth forests. The park is also home to several species of animals including black bears. Camping and other lodging in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, is available onsite. Be sure to check the park’s website before your visit to find information about trail closures, permitting and weather conditions.
DeSoto State Park
Located on Lookout Mountain in Fort Payne, Alabama, DeSoto State Park offers hikers more than 3,500 square miles of rivers, forest, waterfalls and mountain trails. The park also has onsite camping for tents and RVs, as well as cabin, chalet and lodge rentals. In addition to hiking, visitors to DeSoto State Park can kayak, fish or rock climb. Built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps., the park is known for its rare wildflowers and beautiful mountain views. DeSoto is a great destination for families and even offers an ADA compliant, wheelchair accessible trail so that everyone can enjoy the park.
Pisgah National Forest
At more than 500,000 acres, Asheville, North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest is a hikers’ paradise, with hundreds of miles of trails, rushing rivers, challenging mountain ascents and thick woodlands. The forest is home to the Shining Rock Wilderness, the largest wilderness area in North Carolina, and was home to America’s first forestry school, which can still be visited at Pisgah’s Cradle of Forestry in America historic site. Famous for its wild beauty, the forest offers camping and cabin rentals. Visitors can also mountain bike, fish, hunt, horseback ride and rock climb. Maps and publications, as well as information about trail closures, permits and safety alerts, can be found on Pisgah National Forest’s website.
Monongahela National Forest
Located in West Virginia’s Allegheny Mountains, Monongahela National Forest encompasses more than 920,000 acres of forest and wilderness. Established in 1920, the forest is considered to be one of the most ecologically diverse wilderness areas in the United States due to its wide range of mountain peaks and elevation levels. Monongahela’s Cranberry Mountain Nature Center offers events, exhibits and programs that can help visitors learn about the forest’s wildlife, rare plants and orchids.
The forest’s Spruce Knob Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area is a favorite destination for hikers. It is home to North Mountain—the highest peak in West Virginia at 5,489 feet—thousands of acres of unspoiled wilderness, important Native American sites and antique hillside farms. The forest offers overnight accommodations in the form of tent and RV campsites, cabin rentals and dispersed camping.
And if your feet get tired, you can take a scenic drive along the Monongahela National Forest’s Highland Scenic Highway, a 43-mile long National Scenic Byway that offers four picturesque overlooks that include rest stop facilities. Motorists will also not want to miss The Williams River Road (Forest Road 86), which follows along the beautiful Williams River. Visit Monongahela National Forest’s website for maps and publications, trail closure and safety alerts and permitting information.
Note that if you are not accustomed to hiking in a hot, humid climate, you should acquire appropriate hiking gear before your trip, including wool or synthetic pants and shirts that wick away moisture, and lightweight moisture-wicking hiking socks. You should also consider packing rain gear, especially if you will be hiking in the mountains. These items can be purchased online from web sellers like TRU-SPEC, a tactical apparel dealer, or from your favorite outdoor store.
Photo credits, from top: Ramsey Cascades in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is 100 feet high and the tallest waterfall in the park, courtesy of NPS; kayaking in DeSoto from DeSoto State Park Facebook page; Pisgah by Jeff Gunn from Flickr Creative Commons; and Seneca Rocks in Monogahela by Aneta Kaluzna from Wikimedia Commons.